Holocaust Survival Tale: Esia

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 03.30.17
  • NOVA

Over 70 years ago, Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” This thriving Jewish center vanished during the Holocaust when 95% of the Lithuanian Jews were killed. Esia Friedman’s family was one of only two Vilna families that survived. In this interview, she recalls how her family made it out alive by relying on the benevolence of their neighbors.

Running Time: 06:21


Esia Friedman: Life was beautiful for us. We had very wonderful families. My papa's father was a veterinarian. And he had a smith shop. He took care of horses. My mama's father was a very famous rabbi who actually spoke 11 languages and led a group in Esperanto. And I lived in a courtyard with three houses on one side and three houses on the other side.

We had the greatest scholars. When Napoleon came through the city and he saw the institutions that existed, he was in awe. And he named our city the Jerusalem of Lithuania. So we had many newspapers. We had probably a hundred and fifty synagogues. And there was always studying in the synagogue.

The seats were gorgeous. I think they were velvet. And when you walked in, the doors were…that I remembered. The doors were so heavy, so magnificent. And the carving was beyond anything. But I was a little kid and always would go and just look at it. And there was the ritual bath. That was beautiful. I remember being there. My mama would take me. You had to go. And it was so hot when you walked in, that I remember, and there were actually women who would help you, would get all the stuff together, the soap and the towels. And it's, it just, you know, especially in the winter time, it was so nice and warm. It was very hot. And it was just fun because it almost like a meeting place. Everybody was going.

In 1939, uh, in June the Germans attacked us. And I remember my aunt putting up strips of tape so when they were bombing the windows would not collapse. In, on June so, 22 and 23, they bombed us. And they walked into the city on the, on the 23rd my father came with a truck because he was an official in the military hospital. And he said to my mother, Adel, take the children, we're being evacuated.

And my mother said, "Can my sister go?" My brother… my papa said, "No, I can only take you." So my mother said, "Then we will die together." My papa went away with the truck and the Russians took him away. I had a, at that time, a 16-year-old brother who had already finished not only the gymnasium but the lyceum, and he disappeared. And so therefore there was mama and I. They bombed us. And on the 24th, they walked into our city. Within minutes, and I mean within minutes, the Poles attacked us with vengeance. And the Poles began to come into our houses and take whatever they want.

We couldn't go on the sidewalk. Immediately school was out of the question. No doctors, no going to school, no walking on the sidewalks. No food. But because my grandmother had a grocery store, we still had some food.

So then they took mama and me to the ghetto. The ghetto number one. And my mother was brave, I don't understand it. She went to work but she would hide me in an attic. And this is something that I am learning to recall, which is horrible. So I, so we stayed there. And she would go to work. I was hungry. And she would always tell me, "Not a word, you know, you have to stay quietly." And she was hiding me out. And this is how I lived for, what I thought was a long, long time.

So then one day, the ghetto was going to be liquidated. So my mother threw me out from some area. She always had another plan of what would happen. And she pushed me over like a wall or a hall or wherever. And it was probably on the Jewish street, they called it, you know, the Yiddish Zydowska ulica. I can't remember because I'm trying to recall. Everybody tells me go see a psychiatrist. Try to recall. And she told me to run to the people that my father has helped. But you know what she said to me before, in Yiddish? "Mayn kind, zolst keynmol nisht fargesn az du bist a yidishe." All she cared about, which means, "My child, never forget that you're Jewish." And she pushed me out. I went to the… I apologize, go ahead. It's very difficult. I didn't think it so bad.

I went to the people I had been once with my father. And I came and, I think God just wanted me to live. I'm not sure for any other reason. And I came to this gorgeous home where only the Polish nobility lived. And the door was open. So I went in. And to the left was their apartment. I knocked on the door and I said, "Mama said they're going to kill me. Maybe you'll take me in." So you know, I don't blame them for being scared. So she said, "Shhh…" I don't know why the door was open to get into the building. I have no idea. Her name was Anna. And she went in to talk to her husband. His name was Liam, and their name was Lisak, right. And she said, "Okay, we will hide you."

So why am I alive today? Because the Germans and their collaborators did not find to kill me. And these two righteous people risked their lives to save me. To them, it is my gratitude.



Director of Photography
Daniel Lyons, Ezra Wolfinger, Tom Phillips
Pete Nenortas, Oleg Kaizerman, Chris Preston
Digital Editor
Ari Daniel
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017


Archival Photographs
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Moshe and Tomasz


(main image: Esia Friedman portrait)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017

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